A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the meaning of "Ollie, Ollie oxen go free"?

June 22, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me the meaning of "Ollie, Ollie oxen go free"? I've been playing hide-and-go-seek for years and don't know what I've been saying.

Cecil replies:

Aren't we getting a little old for this, Carolyn? I recommend a more mature game, such as Naked Twister. There are dozens of variations of the refrain you mention. Cecil seems to recall saying "Ollie, Ollie ocean, free, free, free." Word sleuths William and Mary Morris offer "Olly, Olly octen free" and "Olly, Olly, all in free," the last being pretty close to what is undoubtedly the original expression, "All the outs in free." You'll recall you're supposed to say it when "It" has found one of the hiders to let the others know the game is over and they can show themselves. Other versions include "All the rest home free," "Alley, alley in," "Allee-ins, not playing," "All the ends stop play," and so on. British kids, compensating for the loss of Empire with superior playground rhetoric, have "All hands ahoy," "All in, all in, wherever you are,/ The monkey's in the motor car," and the mysterious "All in, all in, spuggy in the tin."  One might inquire into the meaning of "spuggy," but one isn't sure sure one wants to know.

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